Overcoming distrust and skepticism
We unveiled The Union Reader Circle this week, and I am told that 75 people already have signed up. In case you didn’t read about it, members of the Reader Circle will have a two-way dialogue with The Union’s editors and reporters about all sorts of issues – story ideas, new types of content, ethical dilemmas – and even opportunities to sit in on daily news meetings or Editorial Board sessions.
Joining is easy on our Web site: http://www.theunion.com/readers, or if you’re into e-mail but not the Web, just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org saying that you’d like to join, and we’ll do it for you.
The timing is fitting, just as we’re getting into the campaign season (although it seems as if the presidential races has been going on for years …). No doubt some folks have joined the Reader Circle in order to keep an eye on The Union, which is alleged to be either a right-wing tool or a left-wing dupe, depending upon your perspective.
One reader has already tallied the number of words spent on Republicans and Democrats in a recent story about county political party picnics and found us wanting on the GOP side. We know that later on, as the campaign letters flow more heavily, people will count letters and become upset if one side outnumbers the other.
Such is the nature of being the sole daily newspaper in a politically lively county. In the newsroom, we chuckle to think that some folks may think we have a daily meeting to decide how we’re going to slant the news. Actually, we strive for balance by slanting the news in one direction on one day, the other direction the next (just kidding).
There also is the burden of community grudges against The Union that go back years. At our fair booth recently, a gentleman was taking me to task about something The Union had done. It didn’t sound familiar to me (I’ve been here two years in September), and he confessed that the incident happened 10 years ago.
Some people claim they don’t read The Union but their detailed knowledge of what is in the newspaper hints that they look at it online daily.
I had an e-mail exchange this week with a woman about whether she could trust The Union enough to join the Reader Circle:
“I’d be happy to sign up for The Union Reader Circle if I felt I could trust that The Union’s management was running the paper for the good of the community – as in, Priority #1, ‘to inform the readers’ rather than ‘to feed the readers to the advertisers’ or ‘to placate powerful local interests’ or ‘to manipulate the readers – underhandedly if necessary – to acquiesce to the owner’s or publisher’s self-interest or ideology.’ Otherwise, it’s probably better for the community that the paper be weak.
“In the past, The Union has squandered this trust. People I know have quit reading the paper altogether as a result. How do you demonstrate to them (and to me) that the paper has undergone a true character shift, and isn’t just ‘playing nice as a tactic’ (which will be discarded when conditions allow)?”
I replied that those of us producing The Union’s news content today (most of whom are new, having joined the paper during the past three years) cannot undo the past. Nor can we say some magic words that will create trust. We just hope that by being as transparent as possible as to what we are trying to do, and then doing it, confidence will take place over time.
We have literally been working to change the culture throughout The Union to be more reader- and customer-oriented. The challenge is to convince those people who stopped reading us altogether to try us again. We have hopes that the Reader Circle and the upcoming daily editor’s Web log will help in that regard.
The reader (I’m assuming she does read us and has seen improvements over the past two years) replied:
“Nobody’s asking for magic here. Trust, if rebuilt, gets rebuilt slowly. Much of it comes from what you do in future. That will take a long time, and as you said, you’ll need to find a way to get the ‘stopped readers’ started again. One way to do that is to make a symbolic breach with the past, to act in a way wholly inconsistent with their expectations – to indicate that your mind-set and goals are not those of the past.”
She thinks the way to do that is to launch an investigative report wherein we acknowledge and repudiate specific instances where we have offended. Even if that were possible to do (I suspect the incidents she refers to were related to political philosophy and involved employees long departed), it would have little chance of changing minds already embittered by the past.
A better course will be for The Union to continue to strive to improve, providing a balance that serves readers of all types and hoping that new and old readers will recognize and trust that we mean what we say.
At least 75 members of The Union Reader Circle are giving us a chance. You can, too, by joining up on our Web site at http://www.theunion.com/readers
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.
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